As a victim of childhood sexual abuse myself, one of my biggest concerns when I became pregnant for the first time was how to make sure sexual abuse never happened to my own children.
My abuser was a relative whom I loved and trusted. He asked me to keep it a secret and gave me money to keep it to myself, telling me I was “his favorite granddaughter.”And I did stay quiet about it until I was 16, only telling one of my sisters and one of my friends. That’s a long time to keep such a dark secret, especially considering it all started when I was two.
Some people have first memories like their first day of kindergarten, or the first time they felt play dough in their hands. Mine was behind the closed door of a bathroom while I was trying to pee, as my grandfather coming in to “check on me.”
I didn’t keep the secret because he was paying me to do so. I kept the secret because I was petrified of what would happen to our fun family trips and vacations. Seeing my grandfather meant seeing my aunts, uncles, and cousins. And for a long time that was enough motivation to keep me silent.
I also became really good at separating the abuse from my actual life. I didn’t want to think or talk about it. I’d push the feelings and thoughts aside, and after some time this led to anxiety, an eating disorder, and an unhealthy attitude about sex and love. The damage it had done crept up on me until I finally told someone.
There were a lot of dark times in my life because of what this person did to me. And just like many other parents, I’m petrified my children may face something like this also.
The Children’s Trust, located in Massachusetts, is dedicated to putting an end to child abuse. The organization reports, “It is estimated that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys experience at least one episode of sexual abuse victimization before they reach their 18th birthday. National statistics indicate that 90% of these attacks are carried out not by strangers, but by people the children know and trust.”
That news makes it even scarier — you think you can count on the people in your life to not only help you protect your child, but to not do them any harm.
Sadly, it’s not the case, but as parents, there are things we can do to ensure our children are safe.
Executive Director of The Children’s Trust, Suzin Bartley reminds us that no one thinks abuse is going to happen to their child of course, “but people who sexually abuse kids are drawn to child-serving programs and have spent a lifetime learning how to infiltrate them.”
So, if you are taking your child to daycare or other programs, you can make sure they have a sexual abuse prevention plan in place by doing the following:
– Making sure the program is accredited, licensed, or certified by a government or private agency.
– Confirming the organization conducts background checks on all staff and volunteers for criminal
and sexual offense history.
– Asking questions like:
– Are there published rules about staff being alone with children?
– What is the ratio of adults to children?
– Are there guidelines outlining acceptable conduct between staff and children, and between the children themselves?
– Are all staff and volunteers trained in child sexual abuse prevention, recognition, and reporting responsibilities?
– Are children always supervised?
– Who does my child go to if he or she is uncomfortable with staff?
– Are written policies and procedures about preventing child sexual abuse in place?
– Will my child be able to communicate with me if necessary?
– Are there regulations spelled out about private times (e.g. toileting, dressing, bathing)?
– If the child will be staying overnight, what are the sleeping arrangements?
– How are staff supervised?
A big preventative measure is to teach your child about what a safe touch is, and Bartley recommends having this conversation with your child while you are also discussing other safety measures like helmets or fire safety. This helps keep your child from feeling overwhelmed. While having this talk, it’s always important to use the correct terminology for their private parts because it empowers your children to communicate clearly. Kids should also know where their private parts are. An easy way to do this is to tell them, “Those parts are typically covered by a bathing suit,” says Bartley.
Explain to your child what clean and healthy means. Bartley suggests using examples like “washing hands before dinner to be healthy” as a way to help them understand. She then suggests asking them to name people they can know who keep them clean and healthy.
Empower your children to say “no” to a touch on their private parts using simple instructions like, “Your private parts are the ones covered by your bathing suit and no one has the right to touch your private parts except to keep you clean and healthy. If anyone tries to touch your private parts, say NO, get away, and come tell Mommy or Daddy.”
Always make sure your child knows they have permission to tell you, or another adult, about unwanted or confusing touches. “Giving permission for your child to talk about what happened is key and it’s also important to tell your children it is never too late to tell,” explains Bartley.
Make sure your child knows you believe them, as it’s very rare your child will make up a story about unwanted touching.
When we understand the warning signs and behaviors that can lead to childhood sexual abuse, it can be prevented. Bartley says parents should be cautious of any adult who does any of the following:
– Prefers the company of children and has little interest in people their own age.
– Engages in peer-like play with children.
– Regularly offers to babysit for free or take children on overnight outings.
– Is overly charming and helpful.
– Is interested in the sexuality of a child or teen.
– Insists on hugging, touching, tickling, wrestling with, or holding a child even when the child clearly does not want the affection.
– Manages to get time alone or insists on time alone with a child without interruptions.
– Fails to honor clear boundaries.
– Believes and acts as though the rules don’t apply to them.
– Gives gifts to children without parental permission.
– Minimizes or shrugs off concerns about how they are interacting with the children.
– Contacts the child privately via social media, text messages, etc. without parental permission.
If you notice any of these signs, it’s important to pay extra close attention and make sure behaviors are stopped. There may even be a time when someone needs to be reported to your state’s child protective services.
If your child has come to you with reports of abuse, the best way to handle it, according to Bartley, is to remain calm, always assume they are telling the truth, remind them you will protect them, and assure them it wasn’t their fault.
Bartley also advises to not contact the abuser but to report them to the proper authorities, and find a safe place to vent about the abuse “privately to other trusted adults and not in the presence of your child,” she says.
Having knowledge on what to look for, and the tools to teach our children (and ourselves) about childhood sexual abuse is a huge part of preventing it. If you or someone you know has been affected, you can contact your state’s Child Protective Services agency, law enforcement, or a child advocacy center or sexual assault center near you.